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The Signpost at the Crossroads


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First Things:

When it comes to politics, abortion remains at the intersection of religion and American public life
Joseph Bottum

You head down the road of public life in America, and you run up against religion. From the conversations in the barber shops and the coffee klatches, through the aldermen’s offices and the town halls, the school boards and the zoning commissions, the campaigns and the columnists, and eventually to the state houses and even, perhaps, to that white-domed Capitol building, far off in Washington—somewhere along the line you come to the crossroads where religion cuts across your path.

You travel the long road of religion in America, and you find the Bible chapels, scattered along the prairie like tumbleweeds that have somehow grown white vinyl siding. You drive past the green-lawn suburban churches with cutesy messages on the brick-framed signs placed out near the street. You pass the exhaust-stained marble fronts of the old city congregations, the yellow taxis inching angrily by. You visit the grand cathedrals and synagogues, announcing their people’s success in America, this newfoundland, and you see the pulpits and the choir lofts and the pews and the Sunday schools—the church basement halls, with their dented aluminum coffeemakers and styrofoam cups, their book tables, their after-service conversations burbling away. And somewhere down that highway you come, again, to the crossroads where the public life of the nation confronts you.

There is a marker at that place, naming its many promises and dangers for travelers, with the word abortion at the top. Even now, abortion remains what it has been for more than thirty years: the signpost at the intersection of religion and American public life.

Of course, there are those who think this shouldn’t be so. Personally, I cannot see how abortion could not rank first. We eliminate 1.3 million unborn children in this country every year, a number that dwarfs, by far, the impact of every other activity with which the moral teachings of the churches might be concerned. For that matter, the story of abortion is a tale of blood and sex and power and law—I do not know what more anyone could need for public significance. The people who say they are uninterested in the issue of abortion have always seemed, to me, to be trying to suppress the imagination that most makes us human.

Nonetheless, even in the churches some do not see things this way, and they want the whole issue simply to go away. But the fact that they wish abortion didn’t matter shows that abortion does, in fact, matter. It’s proof that the social observation remains true, for good or for ill. Whether one approves or not, the issue of abortion is here in America—the signpost at the crossroads.


All of this seems to involve a theory that Republicans form not so much a political party as a hotel corridor. Sure, there’s a room down the hall that holds the neoconservatives, and another room that holds the business interests (a pretty sparsely populated room, given the fact that big business donated heavily to Obama instead of McCain in the last election), and another room that holds the social conservatives, and another room that holds the Tea Party fiscal conservatives. If the Republicans close off or hide some of the louder, more déclassé rooms (so the idea goes), then the corridor will be used by a greater number of uncommitted voters, passing through just in time for the next election.

There’s only one problem with this corridor theory—which is that it’s completely wrong. A modern political party isn’t a neat set of distinct rooms off a hallway; it’s much more like a swirling throng at a reception, bunching up awkwardly between the buffet and the bar. You’re never quite sure how someone ended up standing next to someone else. The Tea Partiers aren’t opposed to the social conservatives—because most of them are the social conservatives. And Mitch Daniels is foolish to call for a pre-proclaimed truce on any issue. Truces are what come after battles, not before them. It is a counsel of smallness, not the greatness that Daniels rightly sees the moment needs.

It’s true enough, however, that the pro-life movement is not the Republican party, and the Republican party is not the pro-life movement. They’ve just been standing next to each for a long time now.

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(This is because I posted a response to this topic that was meant for another topic. I'm off to drink more coffee now...ugh.)

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